The Sleepers of Saint Garfir
“Twelve heroes of Altador…”
Miphie was staring in dismay into her empty closet. Bright morning light trickled in through her window and the Draik remembered she had brought no spare clothes to wear. Her choice had quickly whittled down to the overalls she had arrived in, or a spare Academia Magika uniform for first-year students. Everything else in her little closet had been long outgrown or donated. Miphie stuck to the overalls.
Her room was positioned near the back of the inn, a section of Augusto’s private apartments on the first floor, close to the kitchen. An east-facing window let in a stream of unbroken sunlight. Flecks of dust drifted around the air. Miphie had awoken hours before meaning to, tangled in sweaty sheets and with what was beginning to feel like a mild sunburn on her cheeks. Her old plushie—a threadbare Doglefox—had fallen off the bed in her sleep. The air was already hot and sluggish, but the stone walls made the inn’s interior slightly more bearable than the outside. Chirps and relentless buzzing from summer Moaches and Draphlies dominated the soundscape beyond her window.
The kitchen was alive with activity. Miphie spied Augusto removing a tray of small country loaves from the enormous stone oven, ready to toss in the next batch. He seemed utterly unperturbed by the sweltering heat suffocating the room. Miphie found a seat at the central table, groaning under the weight of fresh-baked bread and a flagon of honeyed coffee. From her spot, she studied her father, searching for any sign of somnolence.
“Up already, sprout?” The Silver Kougra reached over the table to ruffle his ward’s greenish hair.
“I couldn’t sleep,” said the Draik, helping herself to a mug of piping-hot coffee. “How are you feeling?”
Augusto lightly touched the area beneath his eyes, where Miphie’s improvised pomade was now visibly dry and cracking. “Fine, fine,” he said, “I haven’t felt so alert in weeks. Didn’t sleep at all last night.”
“So you… baked?” She eyed the mountains of loaves piled high on the table.
“For the neighbours,” her father simply said. Augusto was generally treated as the unofficial town leader, his inn the beating heart of Saint Garfir. Miphie had long admired his generosity with the hamlet’s people, and his boundless kindness towards all who crossed his threshold. Even now, only just recovering from his lethargy, he was finding ways to help his neighbours, to act as a solid presence in their time of need.
Miphie frowned, searching Augusto’s face. Despite his newfound vivacity, the gauntness which had sunken his eyes and sharpened his cheekbones had not disappeared overnight. His beard had a striking shock of white running through one side. “Papà — you’re really alright?”
“Sì, sì. Your medicine, I don’t know what you put in there, but it worked a miracle on this old man.”
“The mushroom I used has a very potent form of caffeine, much more than this coffee, for instance. Just…” muttered Miphie, “make sure to reapply some later today. I’ll make you some fresh cream. I’ll try and make some for everyone who’s afflicted.”
Augusto chuckled softly, which made his great grey beard rustle. “‘Afflicted,’” he echoed, his voice ringing warm and true, “you learn big words at Academia Magika, Miphina. How did your—what do they call it—your magical presentation go?”
Miphie hid her snout into her mug. “Fine,” she muttered. She vaguely thought back to her success. Miphie had hardly had a moment to ponder its implications. She had communicated with plants—and in a manner which had surprised and impressed the entire school. Faintly, she recalled Flute’s musings outside the post office. How else could this magic be used? “It went really well, actually.”
The Kougra placed a good-natured hand on Miphie’s shoulder and shook it firmly. He smelled of bread and baked stones. “BRAVO, sprout! You always amaze me, you know?” Miphie buried her snout deeper into her mug, at great risk of inhaling a lungful of coffee. “And, your finals, all is well? Your professors, they let you take them later?”
Miphie hiccupped. “Absolutely!” she said with perhaps a little too much energy. Augusto raised an eyebrow. “I have to go, I told Vaso I’d meet him at the Alabriss ranch this morning.” She hurriedly stood up from the bench, bumping her knees against the table as she did. Ignoring Augusto’s stunned protests, Miphie pocketed two hot loaves and strode out into the morning heat.
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
The honey-yellow sun was beginning to rise over the rugged hills northeast of the hamlet when Miphie stepped into the thick heat of the day. A breeze blew mildly through the trees, carrying with it the scent of wildflowers and herbs.
In daylight, Saint Garfir was golden.
The streets were quiet. Winding alleyways and stone facades offered a cool respite from the blazing sun, but as the morning wore on, even the shade would become oppressive. Typically, at this early hour, the locals would have been out by now, either setting up their market stalls or heading towards the hamlet bakery. Yet, Miphie encountered no one out of doors. No sound of laughter or chatter bounced between the leaning houses. Instead, vaeolus flitted from tree to tree. Their chirps broke through the heat, the buzzing sound of insects, and the peculiar stillness of ghost towns.
Miphie forced herself to take some calming breaths, to slow her racing heart. She was ashamed to have lied to Augusto. Eventually, word of her inevitable expulsion would be brought forth. Perhaps a letter from Academia, no doubt signed by Lucenza, was already on its way here. Miphie rubbed her bruised knees, imagining her father receiving the letter, the look of pride on his face withering away into disappointment. His dismayed realization was that his daughter was a failure. Miphie took a few more slow breaths. She had to shake that thought away.
She rounded a corner and saw the Alabriss ranch at the end of the road. Vaso and Miphie had chosen to meet there for its proximity to the Saint Garfir Forest. In fact, the ranch was the fixture nearest its border, and young saplings from the enchanted woods frequently encroached around its perimeter.
A couple of Alabriss foals sidled up to the fence in greeting as Miphie approached. She was the first to arrive: Vaso was likely still tending to his own farm chores. With his grandma now afflicted with the strange illness, the brunt of the labour must have fallen squarely on his shoulders. On top of raising his flock of Babaas and running the day-to-day maintenance of his family’s farm, he was also spending every spare moment caring for his grandmother and the other sleeping villagers. In that regard, Miphie realized, he had really taken after Augusto.
The forest loomed dark and imposing. As Miphie edged towards it, the Alabriss lost interest: evidently, they too sensed the ethereal energy pulsating from the trees. The forest called to her, and the call grew stronger still until she was a mere step away. There was a pull, but there was a repulsion, too. She wanted to step into its shade, and at the same time, create as much distance between herself and the trees as possible. She looked down at her feet and grinned. Foxglove and vervain grew in the moist soil beneath the trees.
Before Academia Magika, the forest had been Miphie’s teacher. And, while she was forbidden from venturing into its darkness, the abundance of wild herbs and flowers growing along the border had effected a fascinating education all the same. In between inn chores and adventures with Vaso, Miphie had spent her childhood here, in the shade of the trees. She had learned which berries were poisonous and which were safe for eating; how to tell the difference between box elder and poison ivy; which herbs might be brewed into tea and to what effect… Then, when Lucenza had come scouting the hamlet, she too had recognized the forest’s wealth of plant life and Miphie’s interest in it.
Miphie’s eyes searched the ground. There were Earth Faerie Mushrooms here, hidden from view under shrubs and berry bushes, and in between the knobby roots of trees. Miphie intended to gather as many of them as possible.
As she worked, her fingers sinking into the soft and humid earth, she hummed a soft tune. She wondered if she might be able to work around the mushrooms’ indigestibility by dehydrating them first and then brewing them into tea. If she brewed them at a low enough temperature, she might not destroy their energizing qualities, and develop a more potent medicine against the somnolence…
A branch snapped.
Miphie’s head shot up. She squinted into the shade: very little light trickled in between the trees, and a gentle breeze rustled the leaves above. Her ears rang, straining to listen. Without meaning to, her thoughts rocketed back to the forest’s legend. How an ancient Garfir, a beast of mythical proportions, was said to guard the forest… Miphie hurried the thought away. Flights of fancy would not calm her racing heart. There were wild Petpets in the woods, yes, like any other forest. Folks walking along the treeline sometimes reported hearing low, rumbling growls coming from beyond the trees. The children of Saint Garfir were warned not to edge too close to the tree line, and she had never been one to break these kinds of rules.
A soft light. Miphie sensed it from the periphery of her vision, just out of focus. She could feel the rush of blood in her ears, and she held her breath. Something was watching her. Slowly, the Draik turned her head towards the light.
Only, it wasn’t a light. The spectre of an Ixi appeared from behind the trunk of a quince tree. Or, at least, Miphie thought it had. One moment, the Ixi was there, the next, the forest was still and dark once more. She might have imagined it all, but the Ixi appeared again, this time closer. From the corner of her sight, Miphie thought she could make out long, flowing hair, a light-coloured pinafore. Again, she turned to look, and again, the vision was gone.
Miphie stood and took one tentative step into the underbrush. Nothing happened. She took another step. Then another, until she was fully in the shade of the trees, the ranch at her back. Sunlight filtering through the leaves gave the shadows a scarlet hue. The soft apparition appeared once more, this time to the left of her field of view. Emboldened, Miphie walked onwards, taking care not to look the Ixi head-on, but keeping its shape well within the corner of her eye. This was the furthest she had ever encroached into the trees. The notion produced a little spark of exhilaration.
“Who are you?” she said. The silence was her response. “Are you causing the somnolence?” Miphie took another step forward, pushing the ferns and brush aside, and blinked. The sun was suddenly in her eyes.
She frowned, looking around. She was back at the edge of the forest, right where she had entered. Her pile of mushrooms was at her feet, exactly where she had left it.
Miphie swung her head around, disoriented: Vaso was rounding the fence and jogging towards her. Even in the heat, his beanie sat snuggly atop his nest of red hair. When he sidled up to her, the Gelert had an eyebrow raised.
“Are you okay? You look kind of pale.”
“Hm? Oh, yeah, I’m fine.” She tossed a cooled loaf of bread, which he caught in one hand. “Only… have you ever seen anyone? In the forest?”
“Don’t tell me you saw someone in the forest?” the Gelert said, peering into the woods. “I’ve never seen anything…”
“There was…” she murmured, “at least, I thought I saw an Ixi.”
Vaso frowned. Again, they stared into the forest. The trees did not reveal their secrets.
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
They spent the morning walking along the periphery of the forest, pausing every now and then to gather mushrooms. Vaso had brought a wide-rimmed basket, and it soon overflowed with fungi. All the while, they eyed the edge of the woods. Miphie hoped to spot the Ixi again, but it did not reveal itself, and she soon wondered if she had dreamt the whole encounter. Could the woods conjure up this kind of trickery?
Most trees along the border appeared healthy. Their branches reached boldly toward the sky, their leaves a medley of reds and golds and greens. Near the northeastern edge of the forest, however, Miphie saw an increasing number of greying foliage. Like snow, wilted leaves fluttered to the forest floor. A few fir and oak saplings on the far outskirts of the holt were also afflicted. More sprouts, like the ones emerging in Augusto’s kitchen, grew from their trunks. Most were too freshly sprouted to reveal many identifying marks, but Miphie found a few with sturdier stems and the beginnings of true leaves. One such sprout, rooted at the base of a greying tree, even sported a little, pale bud.
“Maybe it’s some kind of invasive, flowering ivy,” mused the Draik through parched lips. Her shirt clung to her scales, and she longed for a tall glass of water.
“But if that’s the case, then how can we stop it from taking over the entire forest?” said Vaso. He too, looked like he could use some refreshments.
“Good question.” Miphie approached a sapling and placed a delicate hand on its trunk, being careful to avoid the sprouts. She wondered if she might communicate again with the plants as she had in the academy conservatory and during her presentation.
“Anumatum…” she paused. How did the trees wish to be addressed? She rifled through the memory of her herbology textbook, thinking up any scientific name she could. “Anumatum, bratus.”
Stillness. Miphie stretched her consciousness, hoping to sense the energy pulsating from the dying tree. Nothing. She repeated the incantation, cooed it and murmured it, but the tree was well and truly inanimate. Where a connection had flown like wind between herself and the plants at Academia, flitting in both directions, here it felt as though a wall was blocking the current.
“Maybe those sprouts are blocking the tree up somehow,” Miphie wondered aloud. She tried her animation spell on another tree, but every trunk she spoke to resisted her magic. She adjusted her spell: anumatum, arbor… anumatum, planta, truncus, ramus… She placed her hands along the branches, the exposed roots, and even the living leaves. The trees stubbornly resisted her call. Not even the faintest rustle was summoned from their branches. Miphie scowled and wondered darkly if her trick had only worked at school by some absurd stroke of luck.
After another moment’s consideration, she placed one tentative hand against a patch of sprouts. When she whispered her Anumatum spell, an unpleasant, stinging cold snapped into her fingertips. Miphie yanked her hand back. She hadn’t expected the plant to hurt her.
“What are you doing?” Vaso finally asked, his curiosity eating away the silence.
“I’m trying to speak to the trees,” she muttered back, eyeing her hand, “but it’s not working. Why isn’t it working?”
“Nevermind, Meef,” Vaso said gently. Miphie thought she heard dismay in his inflexion. She scrunched her eyebrows. “Let’s go back to the inn. I’ll help you prepare the medicine.”
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
The rest of the day ambled along in a quiet daze. Vaso helped Miphie prepare enough poultices for the village. By late afternoon, Augusto had grown sluggish again, and Miphie made him reapply the mushroom balm underneath his eyes. She then accompanied him throughout the neighbourhood.
They knocked at every home, bearing their poultice. Everyone was glad to see Miphie. “Miphina!” they said, “sweet child, how is school?” and “You came back to save us? How proud we are of you, how proud your father must be. How kind and talented you are!” Miphie bore it all with a wide grin that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
The effects of the somnolence were numerous. Early symptoms seemed to include anything from general sleepiness to incessant yawning. Eventually, individuals became too lethargic to move. A cold, unrousable sleep was the final, inevitable conclusion. Silence and fear, not spoken of, but ever-present, lingered like fog beside the sickbeds. And in every house, Miphie saw the sprouts. There were thousands of them, blooming out of floorboards and wooden spoons. They grew densest where inhabitants were experiencing the most advanced symptoms. And the more sprouts there were, the faster the symptoms progressed.
Augusto insisted that Miphie cover her nose and mouth as she treated the villagers, but she was certain the sickness was not contagious in the traditional sense. No: the sprouts growing on the forest trees all but confirmed her suspicion. The somnolence and the dying forest were connected. Perhaps a kind of magic was at play.
If only she could identify the sprouts! She might have to wait weeks before they grew into anything recognizable, and by then, more of Saint Garfir could be asleep. More of the forest could have wilted. She could only make more medicine and brew more tea—anything which might help increase the effectiveness and longevity of her temporary remedy.
Temporary. But that was just what it was, after all: a temporary solution. By evening, her basketful of mushrooms had been depleted to a mere handful, and Miphie knew she would have to gather more the following day. How long before the stock of mushrooms growing along the forest edge was completely used up?
That evening, Miphie and Vaso sat at a table in the inn’s main lobby. Augusto was working at the wooden counter: a few villagers had cautiously emerged from their hovels and were quietly enjoying pints of grog. Smears of poultice caked the bags under their eyes. Miphie massaged her wrists, sore from hours spent labouring over a mortar and pestle.
Vaso was in deep contemplation over his own glass of honeyed grog.
“We need to find some way into the forest,” he said at last, interrupting Miphie’s own musings. “There’s gotta be a way.” The Gelert yawned, rubbing his watering eyes. He had been yawning for much of the afternoon. He said it was sun exhaustion, but neither of them really believed that.
Miphie nodded but without much conviction. If only the trees would… do something. Then again, animating a plant wouldn’t necessarily point her to any meaningful solutions. It wasn’t like trees could tell her what was going on. How would she even ask them a question? What would she even ask them? ‘Anumatum, please show me the way to a solution, fellow trees!’ Miphie hid her head in her folded arms on the table.
“Be wary of those woods, kids.” Augusto had brought them a platter of olives and cheese, “some people have gone in, and then never come out again.”
“But the forest spits us right back out whenever we take more than five steps in there,” argued Vaso, helping himself to a slice of soft Altadorian cheese, “I’ve tried.” He yawned again.
Miphie concurred, eyeing the gelert anxiously. “The same thing happened to me today.”
“Sì,” said Augusto. He pulled over a stool and sat down at their table, “but, Miphina, Vasitto — the woods sometimes claim intruders for themselves. It happened once, long before you were born. Long before even I was born!” He chuckled good-naturedly.
“Someone was lost in the woods…” said Miphie. Her breath hitched in her throat. “Who?”
“Ah…” Augusto’s bushy eyebrows furrowed in deep recollection. He popped an olive into his mouth. “I think it was a farmer’s daughter. Mind, it happened generations ago, but my mother told me the story. She was young, and she adored foraging along the outer edge of the woods. She was well-liked in town. Admired by many. How does the story go…” Augusto paused again, pinching his eyes.
“Ah! She had been gathering berries and had ventured into the forest many times before. You see, she knew the trick: after a few paces into the trees, she knew she would be brought back to the entrance. But not this time. She was lost. The trees are enchanted, they like to play tricks. Miphie,” he said, suddenly serious, “promise me you will not go into the forest again.”
Miphie acceded, but her mind was racing. “Was she an Ixi?”
“Sì…” Augusto raised his eyebrows. “How did you know that?”
“I think I’ve seen her,” she answered, “in the woods. Her ghost, maybe.”
Augusto exploded in a deep guffaw, making Miphie jump out of her scales. “Ah Miphina, it is just a legend! It was a story we tell our children so that they steer clear of the forest!” He sobered: “but, it is best to heed the moral of these legends. Often, they carry a thread of truth. Stay out of the forest, understood?”
“Of course, Augusto.”
But Miphie felt a peculiar shiver at the base of her neck, and she shifted in her seat uneasily.
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
A week passed in much the same rhythm. The heat made everyone sluggish and argumentative. Miphie and Vaso churned out more pomade. Miphie discovered that she could brew sun-dried mushrooms into tea or coffee without losing their potency. It worked well to push down the deep lethargy of the somnolence curse.
That is how the villagers referred to the illness, she soon learned. Even Vaso believed that some malevolent magic was at play, but Miphie had her doubts. If no one was able to enter the forest, then surely no one had angered some spiteful woodland spirit—if such a thing even existed.
The mushrooms, for their part, became harder to find, and Miphie was forced to venture a small distance into the forest to find juvenile fungi sprouting at the base of trees. And the trees became sicker. An entire section of the northeastern woods was now grey and decaying, completely overrun by a blight of sprouts. Ashy leaves dusted the forest floor, covering the ground like snow.
One week after leaving school, a letter from Academia Magika materialized in the inn’s mailbox. Miphie had been quick to shred it in the rubbish bin, and Augusto was none the wiser. She decided she would tell her father that she wasn’t going to return to the academy at summer’s end. She would tell him she had chosen to remain at Saint Garfir—of her own free will. He wouldn’t understand, but he would respect her decision, and she would spare him the heavy disappointment of the truth.
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
One evening, nine days after arriving in Saint Garfir, Miphie was strolling along Meadow Lake, enjoying the refreshing coolness in the air. Meadow Lake was less a lake and more a small reservoir. It hugged the southern edge of the forest. As the sun set, Miphie found herself blissfully alone. Some villagers were out now during the day, but at night, everyone retreated to the safety of their houses. She settled onto the edge of the lone dock on the western side of the lake and dipped her feet into the cool water.
Some growing part of her missed Academia Magika. She yearned for the brothy heat of the conservatory, and the cool calm in the library. She even missed practising spells—only a little bit, of course. Everyone in town was pleased to see her, but the heaviness which had set in on the evening she had left the city lingered. It felt as though someone was dropping coins into her chest, the feeling only growing heavier. Much as everyone praised her, nothing Miphie had learned in school was granting her a particular edge over curing the townsfolk.
She would never set foot on her old campus again. That particular thought coiled around her heart and would not stop squeezing.
Early summer’s twilight descended over the landscape, and Miphie let the darkness meet her. The air became damp, and the trill of a meadow Moach’s wings sharpened. A waxing crescent moon cast soft silver light onto the lake, which shimmered like the stars emerging in the night sky. The croak of a lonesome Mortog split the air, followed by the mournful hoot of an Albat perched somewhere above her.
The forest cast a bleeding silhouette along the horizon, creating a blackness so total, that it looked as though its shape had been cut out of the night sky with scissors. Miphie’s night vision strengthened, and she could make out the faint glow of certain fungi growing from a log. Their bioluminescence attracted Petpetpets, she knew that their spores might be scattered further into the forest.
“If only I could be of some use to you too,” she addressed the silhouetted forest, “and you might let me in.”
A different glow drew her gaze. The Ixi. From the edge of her vision, she could see its twitching ears. The ghost stood at the very border of the woods. Was it waiting for something?
“Don’t go,” Miphie whispered. Slowly, she rose from the dock and edged along the banks of the lake. She was relieved to see the Ixi didn’t bolt.
At last, when she was close enough, Miphie permitted her head to slowly turn towards the apparition. She held her arms out in a gesture she hoped appeared non-threatening. The Ixi tensed but did not vanish. Now, Miphie could perceive the details that had eluded her.
She was young, perhaps a few years younger than Miphie. Hair cascaded down her back in loose curls, but some strands floated lazily from her shoulders. She wore a gingham pinafore. And—Miphie felt a chill drip down her neck—her eyes were blank. Where there should have been pupils, glowing white nothingness stared back at her. Miphie blinked. The Ixi did not.
“Are you the Ixi from the story? The one who was claimed by the forest?”
The Ixi tilted her head.
“What’s your name?”
A look of dismay crossed her face. The Ixi shook her head.
“It’s alright,” Miphie whispered. “You can call me Miphie—or Meef if you want.”
A delighted smile graced the corners of the Ixi’s mouth. Miphie felt a pang of sympathy: it was altogether possible that this was the first the ghost had ever been spoken to.
“Do you know what is causing the curse?” At the Ixi’s quizzical expression, Miphie tried again: “Do you know why the forest is sick?”
The ghost nodded her head vigorously. She stepped back into the shadow of the trees, and glanced back at Miphie. It seemed as though she was inviting her to follow.
Heart racing, the Draik stepped into the woods, careful not to trample the mushrooms underfoot. Dried leaves crunched under her boots. The ghost’s steps were silent. She led them further into the trees, and Miphie wondered if she had finally found a way into the forest. Her elation dwindled at her next step when she found herself back at the edge of the woods.
“Wha—NO!” She hurried back towards the trees, but the Ixi had disappeared. Miphie froze. She should not venture into the woods this late—not alone, and certainly not without a guide.
She understood now, though. Yes, she felt it. The woods were vulnerable, the trees had something to protect. Until she could prove that she was there to help the forest, she would not be granted entrance.
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
Miphie was skirting along the edge of the lake with dinner in mind when a voice rooted her in place.
“There you are! Your father said you’d likely be near the lake, but it’s so dark, I couldn’t see a thing.”
That accent. Airy and melodic, straight out of cosmopolitan Altador… Edith Lockwood. That snooty, better-than-thou star pupil—what was she doing here?! Miphie whirled around, but as she did, her foot slipped on a wet stone. She tumbled tail-first into the lake.
To be continued…